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Fix the Broken Olympics with Tug of War

Next week the Olympic flame will arrive in London for the start of the 2012 Games. With it will come a growing barrage of criticism "from counter-event organizers":http://counterolympicsnetwork.wordpress.com/ and critical observers, skeptical of the...
July 18, 2012, 4:13pm

Next week the Olympic flame will arrive in London for the start of the 2012 Games. With it will come a growing barrage of criticism from counter-event organizers and critical observers, skeptical of the vast secrecy, corporate pandering, great costs, security failings, and political controversy that hover around the events.

These issues, coupled with the problematic structure of today’s competitions, often obscure the true meaning and potential of the games. "There is something in the Olympics, indefinable, springing from the soul, that must be preserved," said the journalist and London Marathon co-founder, Chris Brasher.

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That preservation is the driving force behind a great new book by journalist Mark Perryman, Why the Olympics Aren't Good For Us, and How They Can Be. Perryman's work is not an attack on the Olympics, nor is it a snarky dismissal of the lofty sentiments often associated with the event. Unlike many criticisms of the games, he provides detailed suggestions on how they can be improved, laying out his bold and thoughtful modifications in the form of a five-step facelift that he dubs "The Five New Olympic Rings."

What emerges is a text that should be required reading, not only for avid fans, but also for those who have become disillusioned with what the games have become. Perryman's captivating examination of the Olympics is that rare sports book which aims to give us hope and succeeds brilliantly. I would also recommend browsing over to the website he co-founded, Philosophy Football, which is necessary reading for sports fanatics who refuse to divorce their political commitments from their love of the game. Recently, Perryman was kind enough to answer some questions about his new book. Motherboard: Hey Mark. I was wondering if you could start by quickly explaining why protests follow the Olympics everywhere they go? What are some of the issues local citizens have had with the London Olympics?

My starting point would be the argument that you can’t keep protests out of the Olympics because sport is political. Most mainstream media coverage, particularly the sports pages, sticks to the line ‘keep politics out of sport.’ Yet sport is socially constructed; race, gender, and class are all vital to understanding sport. Sport is amongst the most obvious examples of the globalisation of our era. If we begin with this position, protest is natural rather than being unnatural.

The London Olympics security regime has come under criticism and helped driven the cost of the Games from $4 billion to $15 billion

Take the Olympics that I have watched as a fan. Munich ’72, terrorism and security. Montreal ’76, budget over-spend. Moscow ’80, Afghanistan and boycott. LA ’84, first commercial Games. Seoul ’88, drugs. Barcelona ’92, urban renewal. Atlanta ’96, the role of Coca Cola in the bid. Sydney 2000, Cathy Freeman and aboriginal rights. Athens 2004, derelict venues. Beijing 2008, human rights. Each has been characterized by huge issues beyond simply sport.

Regarding London? The reason I wrote Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, and How They Can Be was about the way a consensus has been created around the Olympics that the Games are an unqualified good thing, that all the promises made of legacy, participation, regenerating East London and so, on will be kept. This is despite all the evidence from previous Games to the contrary.

It is hard to come up with any argument against decentralization, yet no sports administrator, no politician, no journalist has made this case because they are collectively in thrall to the Olympic Committee model.

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Yet these critical points were hardly getting a mention, and any organized protests are likely to be small and relatively marginal given the popular desire to believe in the Games. But that doesn’t mean a wider sense of disquiet exists, which will grow, I believe, after the Games when the scale of the failed promises begin to becomes obvious. To plug into this mood, I believe any protest movement has to go beyond being simply ‘against’ the Olympics. Rather, what I have tried to do, and so far this remains unique, is to offer an alternative model, for an Olympics that is better than the model provided by the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers.

London protesters during the 2008 Olympic torch relay to Beijing. Photos by AP / Flickr: AbsurdHorizon

The Olympics are an event that have the capacity to inspire a lot of national pride. The ugly flip-side to that is a potentially xenophobic nationalism. How have these two sentiments been balanced historically and how do you see them playing out nowadays?

My position is that international sport creates the space for some of the nastiest forms of nationalism, but at the same time some of the most popular forms of internationalism. The two will often co-exist, and for some fans they will flip from one to the other. Historically nationalism and internationalism are seen as polar opposites. I believe sport has the capacity to break down that polarisation. Of course there will be plenty of rooting for ‘Team GB,’ but there will also be widespread admiration and support for the achievement of others too. My Olympic memories aren’t simply of Brits winning Gold medals, but the great gold medal performances of other countries’ athletes too. The Olympics aids such a process because in most cases the events are about individual performances rather than teams. My ambition? A fan culture characterized by pride, without the prejudice, and for the most part this is what will characterize London 2012.

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You write about decentralizing the games. Explain what that means and how it would be an improvement over the current system.

It is written into the Olympic Charter that a city will host the Games. The IOC model goes further: every effort is to centralise the Games venues within the host city as far as possible, and LOCOG have obediently followed this model every step of the way. Yet there is absolutely no reason why, like the World Cup, a nation, or even nations, couldn’t host the Olympics. Great Britain is a relatively small country, yet by having all the Olympics events in London it guarantees almost the entire rest of the country won’t be part of the Games in any meaningful sense. No other cities facilities will be used, no natural features utilized, and the audience massively narrowed. The Olympic Torch Relay shows the kind of potential for a decentralized Games, with huge localized support knitted into a national event. Yet that is all most regions, cities and towns will see of the Games in 2012: a fleeting glimpse of the Olympic Torch.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. The IOC recently opened an investigation into National Olympic Committees and ticket agencies over illegal ticket sales

Centralization suits the IOC vanity project, and the needs of the sponsors and LOCOG shamefully have collaborated with this every step of the way without a peep of a challenge. Decentralize the Games, spread the events across Britain’s cities and regions, use existing facilities make use of the country’s natural features and the Games are transformed, made accessible to a far greater proportion of the population, costs saved, and where new buildings are required they would be placed where post-Games use is the most likely. It is hard to come up with any argument against decentralization, yet no sports administrator, no politician, no journalist has made this case. Why not? Because they are collectively in thrall to the IOC model. It’s as if no other model can even be considered. In the book I set out the case for decentralization with practical examples of how in Britain this would work to improve the Games for all.

I have always been confused as to how and why certain sports made the cut for the Olympics, while other popular ones aren’t played. Who decides these things? Like, who the hell is watching fencing?

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There is a clutch of Olympic sports in which the same group of countries always win the medals, while entire continents never get even close to being runners up. This applies to rowing, yachting, equestrian events, fencing, modern pentathlon, and more. Quite a chunk of the program. Broadly speaking, they are sports which require expensive kit and training facilities, complex rules of competition, and have no lucrative professional circuit. Other sports and events require a particular physique to excel, like basketball, which can narrow the global competition. Compare this to football, boxing, middle and long distance running. The medal winners in these events come from all over the world, often from amongst the poorest nations. They require no expensive kit or facilities, have simple rules, and require no particular physique — boxing obviously helps this with the weight divisions.

One of my ‘5 New Rings’ is to base the Olympic program on sports with universal accessibility. It is extremely lucrative becoming an Olympic sport, so sports should have to prove that they have a program to spread access, and not just to take part but to win. Those sports that cannot spread access, where the medals are always won by the same countries, are dropped.

More like this please

You could introduce new sports for a 12-year cycle with clear targets to meet in terms of access. Try out “Tug Of War;” it is difficult to think of a sport with fewer resources, mixed teams and potentially great fun to watch. Or there’s orienteering, which is running combined with map reading. Extend the running events, the most basic sport of all, to include a half-marathon, trail running, road relays. And why not darts? This is a poor person’s archery with none of the expensive kit or facilities. In such a way the Olympic program would be transformed, and if the sports prove popular, that’s for the better.

As an obsessive sports fan, I have some consistent defenses for when people ask me why I care so much about athletes I have never heard of playing sports I don’t usually pay attention to. Why do you love the Olympics so much?

I measure my life out in Olympics and still have the sticker album from the first I properly followed, Munich ‘72, to prove it. For all the Games’ faults, it’s a global festival of sport, many of which I will hardly follow between Games, but all brought together for a feat for a fortnight and a bit. Games that make heroes, and heroines, ours and others. Races on the track, in the pool, around the velodrome you never forget, connected to stories off the track, outside the pool. It’s because I love sport that I wrote the book.

Of course sport can be bad, but I reject the nihilism of those who cannot understand that it is a space for contestation too. Global corporate power has taken over sport but that doesn’t mean it cannot be challenged. I’m neither anti-sport nor against the Olympics, I’m for a better Games for all. The failure of politicians to offer any kind of alternative to what London 2012 has become means that when the promises are broken sport will suffer.